Bryan Wilson: Book Reviews (two books of Gabriele Yonan: Jehovas Zeugen: Opfer unter zwei deutschen Diktaturen, 1933-1945, 1949-1989 [publ. 1999] and Im Visier der Stasi: Jehovas Zeugen in der DDR [publ. 2000]), in: Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2001, pp. 267-269.


Book Reviews

Jehovas Zeugen: Opfer unter zwei deutschen Diktaturen, 1933-1945, 1949-1989
Gabriele Yonan, 1999
Niedersteinbach: edition corona
157 pp., DM 24,80
ISBN 3-00-004151-6

Im Visier der Stasi: Jehovas Zeugen in der DDR
Gabriele Yonan, ed., 2000
Niedersteinbach: edition corona
350 pp., DM 38,00
ISBN 3-00-005626-2

The remarkable resilience of Jehova’s Witnesses in German concentration camps during the Third Reich has been long acknowledged and, indeed, has been the subject of published comment by the British Foreign Office, but the full story of that manifestation of group solidarity and what might be called corporate heroism, in the face of harassment, persecution, and for many, imprisonment, is only now coming to light. The original story was an account of Witness morale under the Nazis, but another complementary episode belongs to the full account – namely the comportment of this beleaguered sect when faced with the hostile intentions of the State Security service (the Stasi) during the Communist régime in East Germany (the DDR). For both régimes, the earnest dedication of the Witnesses, their total commitment, and their absolute certainty about the outworking of God’s plan to establish his kingdom on earth, gave rise to a constellation of values for everyday living which appeared – at least symbolically – to challenge the totalitarian ideologies of both dictatorships. Tiny minority that the Witnesses comprised in 1933 – scarcely more than 20,000 – the Nazi authorities regarded them with alarm, arresting almost half their number, putting 2,000 into concentration camps, and executing over 200. Yonan reviews the chiliastic tradition in Christianity and indicates how the Witnesses interpreted the role of the Nazis in the apocalyptic light of biblical prophecy. Against a background description of the development of concentration camps, the attitude to the Witnesses of the mainline churches, and the concept of the holocaust, Yonan traces the history of Witness resistance and cites first – hand accounts of their experience by Witnesses who survived Nazi persecution and detention, as well as the testimony of neutral observers of Witness comportment in the camps. Acting in unison, the Witnesses achieved, in the prison blocks that housed them, a level of order, cleanliness, self-reliance, and integrity quite unknown in blocks occupied by other detainees, where theft, quarrels, violence, and even murder were commonplace.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Ostzone of Germany grew from 5,000 to almost 13,000 in the two and a half years up to mid-1948, and not least because of this post-war revival, the sect became an object of suspicion for the Soviet authorities in occupied East Germany, particularly because the sect was American-based and because it canvassed the prospect of a new world order. With a bold proclamation, which Yonan cites, the Witnesses made their position clear: "We fear the Communist just as little as we feared the Nazis." A steady, irreversible escalation of tension and deviance amplication began as the Witnesses were prohibited from hiring public facilities for their periodic large-scale assemblies and as their printing works were closed down. Charged with harbouring spies for American imperialism, and thus victims of a show trial, the Witnesses were held to be a threat to state security and were subjected to a campaign of vilification and denunciation. Some local leaders received life sentences (later commuted) for their resistance to the state, but over 50 Witnesses died following mishandling, sickness or undernourishment. The Stasi maintained constant surveillance of the sectarians, periodically arresting those who refused obligatory military (or alternative) service, until the laws were mitigated in the 1970s and 1980s. Even then, prohibition of proselytising and literature distribution remained in force, while baptisms went on in secret in private houses. Yonan describes the cat-and-mouse game in which Witnesses engaged with the state authorities.

For the historical record the book Jehovas Zeugen usefully includes both the Erklärung (statement) of the Witnesses to the Nazi government in 1933 and reproduces in its entirety the petition submitted by the Witnesses to the government of the DDR in 1950. In Im Visier der Stasi, Yonan provides a detailed and copiously documented account of the way in which Witnesses operated ‘underground’ to subvert the purposes of the security service of the DDR.

These two volumes complement each other. They are densely written and make few concessions to the reader, but their importance to the cause of religious toleration by exposing a persistent case of state persecution of a religious minority can scarcely be overstated.


All Souls College, Oxford, UK

(c) Journal of Contemporary Religion

Copy provided by Dr. Gabriele Yonan, Berlin /